September 23, 2012
The cult of pristine wilderness is a cultural construction, and a relatively new one,” writes reporter Emma Marris in her new book-length essay, Rambunctious Garden. Contrary to environmentalists who seek to restore or conserve “pristine” enclaves of nature from human encroachment, Marris argues that nature is everywhere, from the barren Arctic to the birds in a suburban backyard. Nowhere is nature static and unaltered by human beings; ecosystems are plastic, constantly changing and adapting to new conditions, and to the activities of different plants and animals. This constant flux in the earth’s rambunctious ecosystems ought to give us pause when considering the impact that Homo sapiens, the gardening animal, has had on the environment, both before and after the advent of modern technology and industry.
If man is nature’s gardener in Marris’s work, for climate-change activist Mark Lynas we are even more: his book’s eponymous God species. Lynas is concerned with solving the large-scale man-made ecological problems that he believes pose a serious threat to the planet’s future. But his argument is unorthodox. “Until now, environmentalism has been mostly about reducing our interference with nature,” he writes. “My thesis is the reverse: playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our newfound powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris.”
Marris and Lynas are both voices in a growing chorus of environmentalists who acknowledge an important and active role for human beings, and seek to solve environmental problems not simply by restraining human activity but rather by harnessing human innovation and creativity. By dispelling the myth of the “pristine wilderness” and recognizing the role that man has played in shaping the natural world for millennia, Marris forces the environmental movement to articulate more sensible aims than recreating a simulacrum of ecosystems that purportedly existed prior to the advent of industrial civilization. Lynas, for his part, argues for “technofixes” to save the planet. He takes a dim view of the hard-line belief that solving major environmental problems will require “a worldwide change in values, a program of mass education to reduce people’s desires to consume … ‘smashing the power’ of transnational corporations, or even the abolition of capitalism itself.” The welcome efforts of these two authors to correct the errors and prejudices of environmentalism are signs of a slowly maturing environmental movement that seeks practical solutions for the future, not grand ideological transformations to restore some mythic past.
Marris locates the genesis of the pristine-nature cult in America with nineteenth-century transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson and with later naturalists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold. For these writers, European industrial civilization had despoiled the natural beauty of America, which had before then existed in harmony with the indigenous peoples. The central problem of this view is that it is false. It fails to acknowledge the impact of pre-industrial human beings on their environments throughout history. The idea that indigenous peoples lived in a timeless balance with their environment is based on a simplistic and inaccurate ideal vision of a golden age before the arrival of modernity and industry. For example, while Native Americans did not reach the technological development of industrial Europe, they did form impressive civilizations that exercised a remarkable scale of control over the land. Marris observes that the mound-building peoples who lived near modern-day St. Louis lived in “a London-sized city that flourished from about a.d. 950 to 1250.” Archaeologists have found evidence that the population of the Americas at the landing of Columbus was at least comparable to that of Europe. But centuries later, when the interior of the continent was explored by Europeans, perhaps 95 percent of these people had perished from diseases that had been brought from Europe and outpaced exploration. Such large populations cannot but indelibly shape the nature that surrounds them.
The people we now consider indigenous to North America are themselves relatively new arrivals, coming to the continent some thirteen to fifteen thousand years ago. There is growing evidence that this arrival brought with it “prehistoric anthropogenic change,” including the extinction of some of America’s largest animals. Marris catalogues a list of the megafauna that could be found at the first moment of mankind’s arrival: “wild horses, mammoths, mastodons, sixteen groups of ground sloths, the glyptodon (something like a four-thousand-pound angry tortoise with a spiked mace for a tail), short-faced bears that would make polar bears look puny, camels, saber-toothed tigers, lions, and cheetahs.” And, Marris says, indigenous peoples around the world brought not only extinctions, but also exotic new species to the environments they settled in millennia past. By the time Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in 1778, he found a place that was, in Marris’s words, “very much shaped by the Polynesians who had been living there for at least one thousand years: a semi-domesticated landscape filled with species the Polynesians brought with them, including taro, sugar cane, pigs, chickens, and rats, and missing others, including at least fifty species of birds, who were hunted out by the first arrivals.” Even so, the islands still manage to be home today to many species found nowhere else…